The Road Not Taken

Adam Green is cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee which “is organizing Obama campaign staffers, volunteers, donors, and voters to push Obama to fight at www.YesWeStillCan.org.” He shared with me his thoughts on what an aggressive White House effort to secure 60 votes for a public option would have looked like:

Since you asked, “What exactly should they be doing?” here is the list of what it would have looked like if Obama was willing to exert leverage and actually fight.

— Threaten to veto any bill without public option.

— Barnstorm Connecticut before Lieberman dug in his heels (Connecticut, where Obama campaigned for Lieberman in 2006, and where voters want the public option by 3 to 1).

— Barnstorm across Maine (where voters want the public option 2 to 1, Independents 3 to 1, and where only 24% of voters like Snowe’s trigger). Instead, Emanuel met behind-closed-doors with a senator out of touch with her own constituents and tried to cut a deal for a trigger nobody wants.

— Publicly leak that Obama is furious that he went to bat for Lieberman’s chairmanship, and Lieberman is threatening to filibuster reform.

— Publicly leaking that reconciliation is on the table — and will be used to push an even stronger public option if Senate Dems don’t get in line.


— For Reid…threating Lieberman’s committee chairmanship, and reconciliation with stronger public option.

— For Pelosi…drawing a line in the sand now. Saying a bad reform bill simply won’t be brought up for a vote…forcing 30 million people to give money to insurance companies is not reform.

— For progressives in the senate like Russ Feingold, Bernie Sanders, Roland Burris, and Sherrod Brown…saying publicly that this bill is unacceptable and they will not support cloture.

That’s what leverage looks like. Supposedly pro-reform Democrats have failed to exert any real leverage in this fight. You can’t not fight and then expect the public to compromise…doesn’t work like that.

(cc photo by sun dazed)

(cc photo by sun dazed)

We’ll call this the road not taken. It might have worked. And if you genuinely believe that no bill would be better than a bill with no public option, but that a bill with a level-playing field public option would be worth supporting, I think this would have been a smart idea.

But it’s a high-risk strategy. There’s a very good chance that if you say “no bill without a public option” that you get no bill. Green has no proposal here to get Ben Nelson or Blanche Lincoln or Mary Landrieu and there’s no guarantee this would have worked on Snowe, Collins, and Lieberman. But by bringing hardball to bear on the latter three you’d be risking blowing up any prospect of a deal on climate change.

I agree, however, that a credible threat of reconciliation would have done a lot of good. This has been, I think, the major tactical problem with the health reform push. But people sometimes write about this as if there are 57 Senate Democrats itching to do a health care reconciliation bill, being held back by Barack Obama and Harry Reid. As best I can tell, though, the reason the Senate leadership keeps taking reconciliation “off the table” is that there’s very little support for it among the caucus. For starters, Kent Conrad, who’d be in charge of a reconciliation bill, seems to be against it. For another thing, there are doubtless many Senators who are much more comfortable being one vote out of 60 or 61 for a bill than they are of being one vote out of 50 for a bill that “Republicans and moderate Democrats” oppose.

But I certainly agree with Green that the lack of support among senators for majoritarian procedures is a problem. I’ve been blogging myself hoarse about this for over a year. I think it’s naïve, however, to think of the Senate as composed of 58 die-hards plus Lieberman and Nelson. The rot runs deep in terms of getting more serious about the interests of the American people than individual members’ countermajoritarian perks.